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What Is Multitasking?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Multitasking is the act of doing multiple things at once. It is often encouraged among office workers and students, because it is believed that multitasking is more efficient than focusing on a single task at once. Numerous studies on multitasking have been carried out, with mixed results. It would appear that in some cases, multitasking is indeed an effective way to utilize time, while in other instances, the quality of the work suffers as a result of split attention.

The term initially emerged in the tech industry, to describe a computer's single central processing unit performing multiple tasks. Early computers were capable of performing only one function at once, although sometimes very quickly. Later computers were able to run a wide assortment of programs; in fact, your computer is multitasking right now as it runs your web browser and any other programs you might have open, along with the basic programs which start every time you log on to your operating system.

In the late 1990s, people began to use “multitasking” to describe humans, especially in office environments. A secretary might be said to be multitasking when she or he answers phones, responds to emails, generates a report, and edits a form letter simultaneously. If the same secretary is bilingual or multilingual they could be translating English to another language in their head and vice versa while taking notes and checking the time. The difficulty further increases as the recall of words and accents come into play. The ability of the human mind to focus on multiple tasks at once is rather amazing; the American Psychological Association calls this the “executive control” of the brain. It's like when a college student tries to work on a complex calculus problem that requires recollection of key concepts in algebra and trigonometry. The focus isn't lost, and the brain continues to access data that's not in front of them. The executive control allows the brain to delegate tasks while skimming material and determining the best way to process it. This skill is especially helpful for students who have to learn several new concepts simultaneously, from basic algebra to complex calculus. It's never too late to hone this skill, as long as no permanent compromises are made.

While accomplishing multiple things at once appears more efficient on the surface, it can come with hidden costs. Certain complex higher order tasks, for example, demand the full function of the brain; most people wouldn't want brain surgeons multitasking, for example. Insufficient attention can cause errors while multitasking, and switching between content and different media formats can have a detrimental effect as well. You can't solve algebra or trigonometric equations if you're trying to recall formulas from other subjects. In general, multitasking is advised if you can afford to make a mistake because you're not giving it a hundred percent of your attention.

A certain amount of multitasking has become necessary and expected in many industries, and job seekers often list the ability to multitask as a skill on their resumes. Students also find this skill very valuable, since it allows them to take notes while processing lecture information, or work on homework for one course while thinking about another. This is also helpful for subjects like Calculus, which has several prerequisites like geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. Nonlinear recall of concepts and formulas is crucial to be able to pass these subjects with flying colors. When you do decide to multitask, make sure to check your work carefully, to ensure that it is of high quality, and consider abandoning multitasking for certain tasks if you notice a decline. This is especially true for people working in industries that require precision. Biostatisticians, medical professionals, chemists, all of these people need to multitask within limits to prevent the risk of making potentially life threatening mistakes.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon136590 — On Dec 23, 2010

I am a media student and want to adopt public relations as a profession. What should i do to improve myself?

By sneakers41 — On Nov 20, 2010

Cafe41- I totally agree with you. I think that multitasking is important when you are doing several related tasks. For example, if you need to clean the kitchen floor, make dinner, and do the laundry, you can easily put the clothes in the washer to wash, and then put the ingredients to make dinner together and then clean the floor while the clothes are washing and the dinner is cooking.

This form of multitasking makes sense. I think where it doesn’t is when you are driving a car. This is another exception in which multitasking is not suggested and could even be dangerous.

Many people have gotten into car accidents and some fatal, because they dropped their cell phone on the seat and wanted to retrieve it while driving.

Some people have even done texting while driving which is incredibly dangerous and has led to many fatalities because you are driving essentially with your knees while your hands are texting and your eyes are off the road.

By cafe41 — On Nov 20, 2010

Latte31-I have never thought about that. I think that multitasking is important, and you should be able to prioritize which tasks are the most important to complete those first.

This way if you run out of time, you at least accomplished the most important tasks of the day.

The one time when multitasking does not pay off is when you are talking to someone. It is hard to give your full attention to someone when you are doing several things at once.

It is very common for a child to ask a question of a mom and then have the mom answer the child without looking up from the computer.

While this may seem to be an efficient use of time for the mom, it leaves the child feeling that they are not important enough to even allow the mother to look up from the computer.

Eye contact is a crucial sign of respect that should be displayed with any conversation otherwise it comes across as a bit rude. This is very common in a multitasking generation that we live in.

Using your Blackberry to text someone while you are having dinner with someone is a common occurrence and is also socially unacceptable.

By latte31 — On Nov 20, 2010

Anon 25813- I wish I could answer your question, but I wish you luck.

I wanted to add multitasking in usually beneficial and even our computers perform preemptive multitasking in order to prioritize jobs and offer elapsed time for each individual job before it shifts to another task.

There are multitasking operating systems or features like embedded multitasking os like Linux multitasking systems that allow the computer to run more efficiently and produce greater results.

This way you won't have to load an operating system every time you start the computer. The computer automatically knows what to do.

By anon25813 — On Feb 03, 2009

I am interested in a public relations officer working in free zone areas. Can you describe some points which you believe are important to PR?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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